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WebM&M: Case Studies

WebM&M (Morbidity & Mortality Rounds on the Web) features expert analysis of medical errors reported anonymously by our readers. Spotlight Cases include interactive learning modules available for CME. Commentaries are written by patient safety experts and published monthly.

Have you encountered medical errors or patient safety issues? Submit your case below to help the medical community and to prevent similar errors in the future.

This Month's WebM&Ms

Update Date: August 5, 2022
Samson Lee, PharmD, and Mithu Molla, MD, MBA | August 5, 2022

This WebM&M highlights two cases where home diabetes medications were not reviewed during medication reconciliation and the preventable harm that could have occurred. The commentary discusses the importance of medication reconciliation, how to... Read More

Have you encountered medical errors or patient safety issues?
Have you encountered medical errors or patient safety issues? Submit your case below to help the medical community and to prevent similar errors in the future.

All WebM&M: Case Studies (19)

1 - 19 of 19 WebM&M Case Studies
Katrina Pasao, MD and Pouria Kashkouli, MD, MS | March 31, 2022

This Spotlight Case describes an older man incidentally diagnosed with prostate cancer, with metastases to the bone. He was seen in clinic one month after that discharge, without family present, and scheduled for outpatient biopsy. He showed up to the biopsy without adequate preparation and so it was rescheduled. He did not show up to the following four oncology appointments. Over the course of the following year, the patient’s son and daughter were contacted at various points to re-establish care, but he continued to miss scheduled appointments and treatments. During a hospital admission, a palliative care team determined that the patient did not have capacity to make complex medical decisions. He was discharged to a skilled nursing facility, and then to a board and care when he failed to improve. He missed two more oncology appointments before being admitted with cancer-related pain. Based on the patient’s poor functional status, he was not considered a candidate for additional therapy. After a discussion of goals of care with the patient and daughter, he was enrolled in hospice. The commentary outlines key elements for assessing patient capacity, the importance of understanding the patient’s psychosocial history, and strategies to strengthen psychosocial training for medical and nursing trainees.

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John Landefeld, MD, MS, Sara Teasdale, MD, and Sharad Jain, MD| February 23, 2022

A 65-year-old woman with a history of 50 pack-years of cigarette smoking presented to her primary care physician (PCP), concerned about lower left back pain; she was advised to apply ice and take ibuprofen. She returned to her PCP a few months later reporting persistent pain. A lumbar spine radiograph showed mild degenerative disc disease and the patient was prescribed hydrocodone/acetaminophen in addition to ibuprofen. In the following months, she was seen by video twice for progressive, more severe pain that limited her ability to walk. A year after the initial evaluation, the patient presented to the Emergency Department (ED) with severe pain. X-rays showed a 5 cm lesion in her lung, a small vertebral lesion and multiple lesions in her pelvic bones. A biopsy led to a diagnosis of lung cancer and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) showed metastases to the liver and bone, as well as multiple small fractures of the pelvic girdle. Given the extent of metastatic disease, the patient decided against aggressive treatment with curative intent and enrolled in hospice; she died of metastatic lung cancer 6 weeks after her enrollment in hospice. The commentary summarizes the ‘red flag’ symptoms associated with low back pain that should prompt expedited evaluation, the importance of lung cancer screening for patients with a history of heavy smoking, and how pain-related stigma can contribute to contentious interactions between providers and patients that can limit effective treatment.

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Hannah Spero, MSN, APRN, Angela E. Usher, PhD, LCSW, Brian Howard MS1, and Frederick J. Meyers, MD | November 30, 2021

A 77-year-old man was diagnosed with a rectal mass. After discussing goals of care with an oncologist, he declined surgical intervention and underwent targeted radiotherapy before being lost to follow up. The patient subsequently presented to Emergency Department after a fall at home and was found to have new metastatic lesions in both lungs and numerous enhancing lesions in the brain. Further discussions of the goals of care revealed that the patient desired to focus on comfort and on maintaining independence for as long as possible. The inpatient hospice team discussed the potential role of brain radiotherapy for palliation to meet the goal of maintaining independence. The patient successfully completed a course of central nervous system (CNS) radiation, which resulted in improved strength, energy, speech, and quality of life. This case represents a perceived delay in palliative radiation, an “error” in care. The impact of the delay was lessened by the hospice team who role modeled integration of disease directed therapy with palliative care, a departure from the historic model of separation of hospice from disease treatment. 

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A 52-year-old man complaining of intermittent left shoulder pain for several years was diagnosed with a rotator cuff injury and underwent left shoulder surgery. The patient received a routine follow-up X-ray four months later. The radiologist interpreted the film as normal but noted a soft tissue density in the chest and advised a follow-up chest X-ray for further evaluation. Although the radiologist’s report was sent to the orthopedic surgeon’s office, the surgeon independently read and interpreted the same images and did not note the soft tissue density or order any follow-up studies. Several months later, the patient’s primary care provider ordered further evaluation and lung cancer was diagnosed. The commentary discusses how miscommunication contributes to delays in diagnosis and treatment and strategies to facilitate effective communication between radiologists and referring clinicians.  

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Erin Stephany Sanchez, MD, Melody Tran-Reina, MD, Kupiri Ackerman-Barger, PhD, RN, Kristine Phung, MD, Mithu Molla, MD, MBA, and Hendry Ton, MD, MS| April 29, 2020
A patient with progressive mixed respiratory failure was admitted to the step-down unit despite the physician team’s request to send the patient to the ICU. The case reveals issues of power dynamics, hierarchies, and implicit bias as young female physicians interact with experienced male members in the interdisciplinary team.
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An elderly man with a history of giant cell arteritis (GCA) presented to the rheumatology clinic with recurrent headaches one month after stopping steroids. A blood test revealed that his C-reactive protein was elevated, suggesting increased inflammation and a flare of his GCA. However, his rheumatologist was out of town and did not receive the test result. Although the covering physician saw the result, she relayed just the patient's last name without the medical record number. Because the primary rheumatologist had another patient with the same last name, GCA, and a normal CRP, follow-up with the correct patient was delayed until his next set of blood tests.
Leah S. Karliner, MD, MAS| April 1, 2018
Although the electronic health record noted that a woman required a Spanish interpreter to communicate with providers, no in-person interpreter was booked in advance. A non–Spanish-speaking physician attempted to use the clinic's phone interpreter services to communicate with the patient, but poor reception prevented the interpreter and patient from hearing each other. The patient called her husband, but he was unavailable. Eventually, a Spanish-speaking medical assistant was able to interpret for the visit. Fortunately, the physician was able to determine that the patient required further cardiac testing before proceeding with a planned elective surgery.
Anne M. Turner, MD, MLIS, MPH| October 1, 2017
A Spanish-speaking woman presented to an urgent care clinic complaining of headache and worsening dizziness, for which the treating clinician ordered an MRI. When the results came in with no concerning findings later that day, the provider used Google Translate to write a letter informing the patient of the results. The patient interpreted the letter to mean that the results were concerning. This miscommunication led to patient distress and extra visits to both urgent care and the emergency department.
Daren K. Heyland, MD, MSc| April 1, 2017
When a 94-year-old woman presented for routine primary care, the intern caring for her discovered that the patient's code status was "full code" and that there was no documentation of discussions regarding her wishes for end-of-life care. The intern and his supervisor engaged the patient in an advance care planning discussion, during which she clarified that she would not want resuscitation or life-prolonging measures.
Brittany McGalliard, PharmD; Rita Shane, PharmD; and Sonja Rosen, MD| September 1, 2016
An elderly woman with multiple medical conditions experienced new onset dizziness and lightheadedness. A home visit revealed numerous problems with her medications, with discontinued medications remaining in her pillbox and a new prescription that was missing. In addition, on some days she was taking up to five blood pressure pills, when she was supposed to be taking only two.
John Betjemann, MD, and S. Andrew Josephson, MD| April 1, 2014
Despite new back pain and worsening symptoms of tingling, pain, and weakness bilaterally, in both hands and feet, a man recently diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy was not sent for further testing after repeated visits to a primary care clinic. By the time neurologists saw him, they diagnosed critical cervical cord compression, which placed the patient at risk for permanent paralysis.
Urmimala Sarkar, MD, MPH| October 1, 2013
Although the mother of a child, born male who identified as and expressed externally as a girl, had alerted the clinic of the child's preferred name when making the appointment, the medical staff called for the patient in the waiting room using her legal (masculine) name.
Margaret Fang, MD, MPH; Raman Khanna, MD, MAS| July 1, 2011
Following hospitalization for community-acquired pneumonia, an elderly man with a history of dementia, falls, and atrial fibrillation is discharged on antibiotics but no changes to his anticoagulation medication. One week later, the patient’s INR was dangerously high.
Abigail Zuger, MD| June 1, 2011
An adolescent girl passed out after a soccer game, and her father, a physician, took her to the pediatrician for tests. The physician father obtained a copy of his daughter’s ECG, panicked because it was not normal, and began guiding his daughter’s medical care.
Beth Devine, PharmD, MBA, PhD| April 1, 2010
A medication dispensing error causes nausea, sweating, and irregular heartbeat in an elderly man with a history of cardiac arrhythmia. Investigation reveals that the patient was given thyroid replacement medication instead of antiarrhythmic medication.
Gail B. Slap, MD, MSc| February 1, 2010
An overweight teenaged girl came to the pediatrics clinic for routine follow-up of her type 2 diabetes, complaining of nonspecific, intermittent abdominal pain and worsening acne. The physician prescribed topical acne cream and increased her diabetes medications. The next day, an obstetrician notified the pediatrician that this patient had delivered a healthy infant via Caesarian section overnight.
Ted Eytan, MD, MS, MPH| October 1, 2008
An elderly, non–English-speaking man with diabetes was admitted to the hospital twice in 8 days due to hypoglycemia. At discharge, the patient was instructed not to take any antidiabetic medications. In between hospitalizations, he saw his primary care physician, who restarted an antidiabetic medication.
Elizabeth A. Howell, MD, MPP; Mark R. Chassin, MD, MPP, MPH| May 1, 2006
A woman with a fractured right foot receives spinal anesthesia and nearly has surgery for trimalleolar fracture and dislocation of the left ankle. Only immediately prior to surgery did the team realize that the x-ray was not hers.
James G. Adams, MD| June 1, 2003
Abdominal pain misdiagnosed in an ED patient leads to ruptured appendix, multiple complications, and prolonged hospitalization.